Burning down the house

I first saw Al Green perform live at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1985. He had long since more or less abandoned soul music for the Church (he had bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis and gone into preaching) and for gospel music. He was touring behind a newly released album of gospel music that he had recorded with producer Willie Mitchell, who had created the Al Green sound that brought him a string of hits between 1971 and 1976 unprecedented in Southern soul music history.
The performance was nevertheless a revelation to me. Hearing the raw power of Green’s voice in person made it possible to understand how much a producer’s artifact of imposed restraint — Mitchell called it “softness” — was the voice heard on the great Al Green hits. In person, Green had a voice of awesome power and incredible dynamic range, with full control from a whisper to a shout — just like the Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers’ 1950’s gospel recordings.
In his outstanding history Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick describes it as follows:

Willie Mitchell and Al Green came up with an old idea phrased in a new way, the last eccentric refinement of Sam Cooke’s lyrical, gospel-edged style as filtered through the fractured vocal approach of Otis Redding and the peculiarly fragmented vision of Al Green himself. This was a vision it would be virtually impossible to characterize…and it proved in the end to be incompatible with worldly ambition, but it was always marked by an unerring musicality.

Everyone in the audience that night in 1985 had of course come to hear some of those hits. Green’s performance refused to accede in the slightest to the desires of his audience. Rather, he consciously toyed with and frustrated the desire of his audience to hear the beloved songs that had brought him fame and wealth. It was a weirdly hostile performance.
Last night Green returned to the Guthrie and gave one of the most fully satisfying performances I have ever seen. Playing with a band of ten musicians (drums and percussion, keyboards, horns and guitars), three backup singers and two dancers, Green put on an old-fashioned James Brown-style soul revue, but with gospel numbers and preaching included. The show ranged over his 35-year career in a seamless web of love and devotion.
The show maintained a pitch of incredible intensity from the opening number. But one emotional high point came in the middle of his 80-minute set when he launched into a deeply moving “Amazing Grace” (the hymn Sam Cooke had worked into his magnificent version of “Must Jesus Carry the Cross Alone” with the Soul Stirrers) that concluded with a vamp on the old Sam Cooke show-stopper, “Nearer My God.” Green climaxed the show with a long, hot version of “Love and Happiness” and declined to take the stage for an encore. The man remains something of an enigma.
Jon Bream of the Star Tribune accurately previewed Green’s show this past Friday in “Soul salvation: Al Green straddles the sacred and sexual worlds.” If you can see the show on Green’s current tour, don’t miss it. It’s an uplifting event that puts a little love in your heart. Above is a recent photo of Green in performance very much as he looked last night.


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